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Post by Admin on Sat Jan 28, 2012 11:40 pm

A Dangerous Method: on the set of David Cronenberg's new film
Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen star in a story of lust, deceit and psychoanalysis
On the set of A Dangerous Method
Image 1 of 3
Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method

By David Gritten

9:00AM GMT 28 Jan 2012

Comments2 Comments

It’s a hot, sultry July day here on the shores of Lake Constance, and the atmosphere is one of profound calm.

Not a ripple disturbs the surface of the lake, on the borders of Germany and Switzerland; it looks like glass.

A row of solid, imposing, creamy-beige 19th-century houses on the shoreline seem to be basking in the sun’s heat.

Everything looks tranquil, affluent and idyllic: a perfect setting for a costume drama.

This impression is reinforced by the presence of a film crew going quietly about their business, and a couple of actors in early-20th-century dress.
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There goes Michael Fassbender, strolling along a tree-lined path at the lake’s edge in a frock coat and stiff collar, using the shade to stay as cool as possible.

And on a small landing platform that juts out a few feet into the water stands Keira Knightley in a white cotton blouse and an ankle-length skirt.

All this suggests a handsome, somewhat sedate period piece. But that would be a false assumption. True, the characters in this story address each other, in direct speech and by letter, in a formal, courteous manner.

The correct social etiquette of the time is meticulously maintained. But beneath this polite veneer, these people are radical, passionate and sexual, and their stories involve hysteria, lust, deceit and ambition.

The film, A Dangerous Method, is set between 1904 and the eve of the First World War, and recounts the increasingly tense relationship between the two key figures in the early history of psychoanalysis: Carl Jung (Fassbender) and his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).

Jung was inspired by Freud, but increasingly came to question the rigidity of his beliefs, particularly in regard to sexual matters. Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a young, highly intelligent Russian-Jewish woman from an affluent background, who in both personal and professional terms comes between them.

She is initially seen as a disruptive, troubled 18-year-old and diagnosed with hysteria. Spielrein is admitted to the Zurich hospital where Jung practises; he tries Freud’s experimental psychoanalytic treatment on her, then known as 'the talking cure’.

Sabina becomes the third side of this combustible triangular relationship when Jung – bourgeois, outwardly respectable, with a wealthy pregnant wife – unearths the root of her dysfunction: the humiliation of regular beatings from her father and her shame at the sexual element this arouses in her. Jung then embarks on an affair with her, a breach of the therapist-patient relationship that horrifies Freud. As the film’s director, David Cronenberg, puts it, 'It’s an intellectual ménage à trois.’

The presence of Cronenberg on the set seems at first glance to be another contradiction. After all, this veteran Canadian (he is 68) made his name with a series of eye-popping genre movies – Rabid, Scanners, Videodrome – that between them included scenes of rampaging zombies, an exploding human head, and a man with a video recorder in his stomach. Though Cronenberg veered away from blood, gore and body parts in his more austere and cerebral recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises), it feels odd to find him directing a dialogue-heavy period piece in such a stately, tranquil setting.

But that misses the point, he says: 'My other movies are irrelevant to me. The movie I’m making at any time tells me what it needs, and I try to give it that. Sometimes I have to remind people that my first film [made in 1966] was Transfer, a seven-minute short which featured a psychiatrist. This is subject matter that interests me.’

A Dangerous Method started life as a screenplay called Sabina, written by Christopher Hampton for Julia Roberts’s production company (she was to play Spielrein). When the project fell through Hampton adapted it for the stage. Called The Talking Cure, it premiered at the National Theatre in 2002, with Ralph Fiennes as Jung. Cronenberg read the play and commissioned Hampton to write a third version. He then brought on board one of his favourite producers, Jeremy Thomas – their working relationship goes back more than 20 years – to raise financing for the film.

On set Cronenberg, in a black baseball cap and fleece, jeans, trainers and dark glasses, fits right in with the pleasant location. 'Hi, I’m David, the director,’ he says politely. Mild-mannered and quietly spoken, he’s like a kindly senior academic. Still, from the first five minutes of the film, there’s no doubt its director is at ease with extreme material. On arriving at the Burghölzli, Jung’s hospital, Sabina is a shocking, distressing sight – struggling, flinching from human contact and contorting herself in grotesque gestures of pain and terror. She has an alarming facial tic, which involves thrusting out her lower jaw with savage force. It’s a ferocious, almost alienating performance.

'That was all based on research,’ Knightley tells me later. 'David only told me a couple of things he wanted for Sabina. He said, “For the accent I want mid-Atlantic with a blush of Russian.” And he wanted her tics to be on her face. I said, “Anything specific?” And he said, “Nope. I trust you.”’

She and Cronenberg got into the whole topic of 'mad acting’ and its central dilemma: do you hold back or go for broke, playing madness to its alarming extremes? Knightley concluded, 'What was going on internally with Sabina was shocking, and I think we wanted that to be physically manifested.’

So she read Spielrein’s diary entries ('she describes herself as a dog or a demon’) and studied Francis Bacon paintings for inspiration. 'Then I sat in front of the mirror and pulled faces at myself.’ She finally summoned the courage to call Cronenberg on Skype – she was in London, he in Canada – and tried out the grotesque expression on him: 'I remember saying, “Here are some options.”’

The largely unknown Spielrein is given a prominence in this story that is justified by the facts of her life. After undergoing analysis with Jung, she became a student, blossoming into an influential psychoanalyst in her own right and writing a notable early dissertation on schizophrenia.

If her portrayal of Sabina feels a radical departure for Knightley, Cronenberg has his answer ready: 'Sabina was only 18 when she came to the Burghölzli, so she has to be someone who can play that age. All the characters in this story are cultured, well-read, hugely articulate, so she needs to be able to convey that. Then there’s that business of period drama. Some actors simply don’t convince you when they’re thrust into a period piece. I’d seen enough of her movies to know that Keira can.’

Playing a real-life character who is little known at least gave Knightley a certain licence, one that was denied to Fassbender and Mortensen. Not only are Jung and Freud giants in their field, but the fierceness of their followers’ admiration for them makes it crucial to get them right.

Fassbender seems relaxed about this – perhaps because the shoot has gone smoothly, the cast and crew are on their penultimate day, and his parents are on set to visit him for a few hours. He says he warmed to Jung while playing him. 'I may be biased here,’ he says with a grin, 'but I think Jung was more radical and more fluid than Freud, who I think was stuck in what he believed in. I don’t think Jung had such set ideas. Theories, yes, for sure.’

Fassbender, currently the most in-demand lead film actor, says he read some biographies of Jung, but even if he had wanted to research Jung deeply, he lacked the time. 'I just came straight into this from playing Rochester in Jane Eyre,’ he recalls. 'I had two and a half weeks before this started. Still, it’s good to be under the cosh sometimes.’

He had not tried psychoanalysis himself, but found enough in Jung’s complex character to engage him. For him the attraction of the role was 'to tackle an eloquent, muscular piece of dialogue. You want to treat it like a piece of music, get a grasp of the rhythms. For characters like Jung and Freud, discourse was a weapon.’

Fassbender was required to make only one change to his appearance while playing Jung: he simply grew a moustache for the role; at Cronen­berg’s suggestion he agreed to have it dyed black. In order to play Freud, Mortensen, who is of Danish descent, needed more of a makeover to pass for a middle-European Jew. 'I was given more of a nose,’ he says. 'And I wore heavier brows, too. I told David I thought my eyes should be brown, and he agreed, so I wore contact lenses.’

Mortensen, who starred in Cronenberg’s previous two films, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, reveals he felt some trepidation about playing Freud. 'I was a little hesitant to say yes to David at first. I don’t usually get a chance to speak so much in films, so the idea of speaking all these really well-written words…’ He pauses. 'But when David convinced me I was the one he wanted to do it, I thought, well, it’s a great opportunity.’

Jeremy Thomas whisks me away from the set for coffee in the gardens of a nearby hotel, where he sits down and sighs. 'It’s difficult to raise money for films,’ he says. 'More and more so for a film like this. It has very rich content, it’s about great thinkers. Freud and Jung have left their impact on the culture and on thought.’

He likes his films provocative, tough-minded and substantial. His collaborations with Cronen­berg have caused controversy; The Naked Lunch (1991) was an adaptation of William Burroughs’s drug-fuelled novel, while Crash (1996), which dealt with the transgressive sexual couplings of car-crash victims, attracted the close attention of British film censors.

Thomas knows A Dangerous Method isn’t an easy sell to casual filmgoers; it’s heavy on dialogue and its themes are cerebral. 'It’s dry out there, it’s a desert for films like this,’ he says ruefully. 'But I hope the film won’t be viewed as just wordy. I think it’s going to be completely thrilling. It’s an action movie – but with words, rather than a car chase or a pistol. And in those words, you have what thinking people find interesting.’

Thomas is no stranger to mainstream cinema; his father, Ralph, directed many of the Doctor films in the 1950s and 60s. He knows what makes people pay money to see movies. With A Dangerous Method, he thinks, the cast is the key. 'Think of the actors who play these screen parts – they’re all so unbelievably attractive. There’s Michael, who we know is the real thing, an incredible actor. For Jung, you couldn’t get someone more exciting than him. Keira is a maturing actress, magical and gifted. Viggo is an extraordinary screen presence. So we have very magnetic actors speaking those words. It does make a difference.’

As we talk, a curious thing happens: a huge airship glides silently overhead, down the length of Lake Constance; it’s on a test run, heading for the Zeppelin factory just across the lake. 'I hope David has his cameras turning,’ Thomas murmurs. One sees his point – the sight of the airship, above the extras on the ground in period costume, makes for a dreamlike, almost surreal contrast.

Cronenberg chooses not to bother with the airship. Instead he and his crew are preparing for the day’s final shot, in which Knightley emerges from one of the handsome houses and climbs into a taxi – a gorgeous 1909 Delaunay-Belleville, hired for the day – while a horse-drawn carriage passes by across the street. It’s an apparently routine scene with a function – to underline that the lives and thoughts of Jung, Freud and Spielrein were ushering in a new, modern era.

Cronenberg uses the same collaborators on most of his films: the director of photography Peter Suschitzky, the production designer James McAteer, the composer Howard Shore, and his own sister Denise, who has designed costumes for every one of his films since The Fly (1986). As a result, everyone knows what is expected of them. His crew and key department heads go about their business in a notably calm, cheerful mood.

Cronenberg keeps them all on a loose rein, and they contribute their expertise in subtle ways. McAteer, who designed the iconic telepods for The Fly, said that interior scenes were shot in Cologne for five weeks, and in Vienna for specific locations, including the Café Sperl, a fashionable meeting place dating from the 1880s. 'Nothing had changed in there, except the cakes,’ he recalled. 'The only thing I had to do was to hide the cappuccino machine behind a marble pillar.’

A staircase at Freud’s former practice and apartment in Vienna, now the Sigmund Freud Museum, was used for a scene involving Mortensen, but a reproduction was made of Freud’s small, cramped study. 'Freud was a smoker,’ McAteer observed, 'so we put a nicotine-stain film over everything. His study was cluttered, but we made Jung’s lighter and less traditional looking.’

Cronenberg and McAteer favoured Lake Constance as a location to double for Lake Zurich, where Jung was based. 'This stretch of water looks like Lake Zurich, and the real lake is too built up now,’ McAteer explained. 'Then there’s this block of period buildings without modern touches.’

Denise Cronenberg tells me that she made blouses for Knightley in batiste, a soft, thin cotton that allowed the actress freedom of movement – an important consideration for Spielrein’s contortions. 'Everyone was elegant in those days,’ she says, 'and I’ve had to fight for that. Viggo at one point said, “When I’m working at my desk, could I roll my sleeves up?” Absolutely not. “Take my jacket off?” No! In this era, you never went out unless you were totally put together. Michael’s wearing wool suits even in this weather, but that’s what they did.’

Denise looks calm and relaxed as she discusses this. 'There’s no tension on David’s sets, ever. It’s ruined it for me working with other people.’ But if she’s guilty of sisterly bias, it’s worth noting that everyone else I talk to says exactly the same thing about working with Cronenberg. 'It’s a well-oiled machine,’ Knightley says about the production. 'On set there’s a serious, supportive work atmosphere, with no stress. If people had been too serious or tricky, it could have been a harrowing experience. But David, Viggo and Michael are extraordinarily good fun.’

Is there an audience for such an intellectually engaging film? 'You can only go with what you’d want to watch,’ Knightley reflects. 'I found the story absolutely fascinating. This was a script that made me ask so many questions. And you think to yourself, I can’t be the only one.’

'A Dangerous Method’ is out on February 10

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